The NBA world is in a state of purgatory. The current NBA season has been suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and with little information pertaining to when the 2019-20 season will resume, basketball junkies have pivoted toward different forms of entertainment. The first is reliving various moments of the 2019-20 season. The second is reliving various moments of basketball history, most notably through the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls documentary: The Last Dance.
The third way, and one I have found solace in thinking about, is discussing basketball’s future. The landscape of the league has shifted dramatically over the past 12 months, with the balance of power tilting toward Los Angeles and Golden State losing several star pieces. That landscape could very well shift again after games resume with a pivotal 2021 free agency hanging over several organizations.
Will the NBA change again between now and then? There are only a few ways teams can significantly alter the previous season’s win total in the upward direction: trades/free agency acquisitions, reinforcements or unprecedented internal improvement. The Lakers and Clippers added Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Anthony Davis in aggregate in the 2019 offseason. Two of the teams in 2019-20 sustained key injury losses before the season even began and will look to rebound next year when their players get healthy. Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks made a leap from borderline All-Star to MVP candidate from his first to his second season. Those factors drastically alter win totals and are what will be considered for this exercise.
Here are my top 10 2020-21 title contenders, a remarkably similar list to the one produced by 2019-20.
The relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert may be ready to “move forward” following tensions stemming from Gobert’s handling of the Coronavirus situation, but that doesn’t mean the Jazz are back in the race for contention. With Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, and Bojan Bogdanovic all over 31 years old, it’s fair to question how much better the Jazz can be with their current core. Both Mitchell and Gobert have flaws that, while covered up by each other and the supporting cast, aren’t completely erasable.
James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Rockets may be without Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey over the next few months, and nothing about the Rockets appears to be very stable. The micro-ball experiment clearly worked to a certain degree in the regular season, but it has yet to be playoff tested.
The Pacers should eventually get a fully healthy Victor Oladipo at some point, but there’s no guarantee Oladipo is fully healthy again. He’s also on the last year of his deal in 2020-21, and his uncertainty, along with fit concerns of Indiana’s two bigs and lack of wing defense, should offer up concern.
The Heat jumped onto the scene this year with some surprising performances and the growth of Bam Adebayo; however, it’s unlikely that Miami acquires any significant upgrades this offseason. With 2021 free agency looming, I expect the Heat to keep their powder dry in 2020 and simply go forward with most of their young players and Jimmy Butler.
Finally, the Pelicans are great with Zion Williamson, but it’s probably too early to pencil such a young team with so many unfinished pieces as a contender. The Nuggets experienced this over the last couple of years. It’s difficult to win, and learning how to best win is part of a long process. The Pelicans will be good, but not quite yet.
10. Brooklyn Nets
In 2019 free agency, the Nets signed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, knowing full well that Durant would be out with a torn achilles for the entire 2019-20 season. Irving played just 20 total games himself last season, undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in February. With Durant and Irving presumably healthy and ready for the start of the 2020-21 season, they must be included on this list.
The question is how high to put such an enigma of a team. With head coach Kenny Atkinson gone after rubbing certain veterans the wrong way with his approach and coaching style (gee, I wonder who that could have been?) the Nets currently lack an identity. Durant and Irving are there. Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert are guard/wing scorers under contract. Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan are rim-rolling bigs that draw attention away from the perimeter. Is that enough to formulate a title contender?
With Durant and Irving coming off significant injuries, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Nets attempt to trade for another star (think Bradley Beal) or at least try to fill out their rotation with several vets capable of a supporting role.
The Warriors are an interesting team. With three core players (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) locked in, everyone else is fair game in a trade to help extend Golden State’s title run. That means the recently acquired Andrew Wiggins and his massive contract, draft picks Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole, as well as nearly every 10-day contract player the Warriors signed last season to avoid spending more money than they had to spend.
Is this Big Three of Curry, Thompson, and Green still in their prime or moving past it? All three players are in their thirties, and with both Curry and Thompson both coming off significant injuries, it’s fair to wonder whether they will have the same impact upon their return. In addition, this Warriors team suddenly lacks playmaking with Durant and Andre Iguodala gone with Wiggins ultimately replacing them.
Can Golden State get back to the promised land? We will see.
What a tandem to have with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Two physically dominant superstars with a variety of superstar traits, from the big personality and post presence in Embiid to the smooth 6’10 passing wizard in Simmons. If any team were to “look” like a contender, Philly has a great argument.
Unfortunately, the past three seasons with those two have ended in underwhelming ways. The Sixers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2017-18 when the Boston Celtics completely upended them in five games. Philly responded by going out and acquiring Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. They lost in the second round in 2018-19 to the “Four Bounces” shot by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in Game 7, to which they responded by letting Butler and JJ Redick walk and replacing them with Josh Richardson and Al Horford.
This year, the team make-up just never meshed together. There wasn’t enough shooting to surround the star duo, and injuries may have gotten the best of both stars at this point. Can the Sixers recover from even more disappointment? Will they trade Embiid or Simmons? There are enough questions here to be concerned.
7. Toronto Raptors
The 2018-19 NBA champion Toronto Raptors were due for a drop-off after Kawhi Leonard left to play for the Los Angeles Clippers. That never happened, and if the 2019-20 season finished today, the Raptors would have the third best record in the NBA, including over Kawhi’s Clippers. Pascal Siakam stepped up to become a legitimate All-Star, and Masai Ujiri continues to find diamonds in the rough to fill out the Raptors roster with winning talent.
In 2020-21, that might change. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are free agents, as is Fred VanVleet, though FVV is restricted. With so many key contributors in need of new contracts in a 2020 free agency class that is extremely weak, it’s unlikely that the Raptors bring all three of their quality free agent veterans back. In addition, 2021 free agency and the prospect of adding Giannis Antetokounmpo looms over everyone, including Ujiri and the Raptors. It would surprise me if the Raptors went all in for the 2020-21 season, and unless they do, it’s difficult to see them competing for another championship immediately.
6. Dallas Mavericks
With Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks have a great foundation for a championship caliber squad. The questions will come with the supporting cast. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry are the only other Mavericks to average 10+ points per game, and while Doncic is one of the league’s best passers, the second leading Maverick in assists (J.J. Barea) averages 3.8 per game.
The Mavericks need one more legit creator before they can ultimately call themselves championship contenders, but owner Marc Cuban has never been shy about spending money to field a championship squad. If there are options to insulate Doncic and Porzingis on either side of the ball, he will pay the piper.
The problem: there aren’t that many creators in 2020 free agency. Fred VanVleet is one. Evan Fournier is another. DeMar DeRozan will probably be too pricy for Dallas and their cap situation. In addition, the Mavericks lack trade assets after acquiring Kristaps Porzingis. Unless they can find a way to add a third guy, they will probably be stuck in the “good not great” tier.
5. Denver Nuggets
Here’s where things get interesting.
The Nuggets are one of the teams that has a lot of upward mobility despite a poor 2020 free agent class. Denver’s additions won’t come from free agency, but potentially in a draft filled with role players, on the trade market in the form of several borderline stars, and growth from within for Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray.
Murray, Porter, Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Monte Morris are all locked in for next season, and the Nuggets have the opportunity to pick and choose the direction they go to best surround the players on roster. Jerami Grant (player option), Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig are all free agents, but the most impactful pieces going forward are the ones currently on roster. If the Nuggets choose to bring back Grant, they will have at least seven returning rotation players (counting Porter) on a team that has been on a 54-win pace for two seasons in a row.
There are opportunities to get better in the draft. Players like Tyler Bey, Aaron Nesmith, Saddiq Bey, and Josh Green could all provide immediate contributions in a narrow role. Even Bol Bol and PJ Dozier, both of whom I expect to be back with Denver next season, could basically be young, rookie contributors.
But the ultimate step involves a willingness to be active on the trade market. The Nuggets were in talks with several teams about adding high profile guards to their roster and the trade deadline, and that willingness could lead to Denver acquiring a big name at some point. If that player fits well with Denver’s core, they could join the top tier of playoff contenders. Bradley Beal and Jrue Holiday are names that have been thrown out there previously.
As it stands, Denver has too many questions to be placed in the top group, but if those questions are answered quickly, don’t be surprised if they move up fast.
4. Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum had his star turn after several weeks of elite scoring on a winning team in January and February. 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.9 assists while shooting nearly 40% from three-point territory on 7.1 attempts per game. Those are Paul George numbers, and this was Tatum’s Age 21 season. He will continue to get better.
Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart make up the supporting cast. There are no bigs among that group, but with the perimeter talent and versatility of the five players above, it may not matter. In a conference where the only two truly physically dominant bigs are Embiid and Giannis, the Celtics can make up the difference by being the best perimeter-based team in the NBA going forward.
They aren’t quite at the level of the top three, but given the knowledge of their top five rotation players and how none of those players are likely to regress so soon, they are the better choice to lead the second tier over the Nuggets or Mavericks.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
How many seasons does LeBron James have left in the tank? it may seem foolish to continue asking the question, but James is racking up minutes at an alarming rate. He’s ninth all-time in regular season minutes and first all-time in playoff minutes by a wide margin. In addition, next year will be his Age 36 season. The only players to be exceedingly good past their Age 36 season were Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Stockton, and Karl Malone. None of those legends came into the NBA at 18 and racked up 10,000 NBA minutes before his 22nd birthday like LeBron did.
Anthony Davis is also technically a free agent, but nobody expects The Brow to leave LA after Rich Paul basically forced Davis out of New Orleans to unite with LeBron. Those two formed a dynamic duo this past year and have what it takes to win a ring.
What’s most interesting is how they surround those two with complementary talent. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a player option and will likely use his Klutch connections to re-negotiate for more money. Dwight Howard filled an integral role and is a free agent. Rajon Rondo has a player option, though his role was less integral. The Lakers aren’t going to have the flexibility to add any player for over the mid-level exception in free agency. They don’t have any trade assets. It would surprise me if they were able to add another significant contributor to their group with such little flexibility.
Still, James and Davis are elite. If they remain so, they are in the title race no matter what.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
While Giannis’ free agency is more frequently discussed, the Los Angeles Clippers have an insane amount of pressure to win immediately to appease their stars as well. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both have player options in 2021 and the opportunity to leave if things don’t work out. The Clippers used a lot of resources to unite the duo in Los Angeles last year, but if the Coronavirus prevents the NBA from crowning a champion in 2019-20, it will have been a lost year on LA’s big investment.
The Clippers are above the Lakers in this ranking because of the certainty of their supporting cast. Leonard, George, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley will be back. Montrezl Harrell will be a free agent, but expect the Clippers to bring him back as well as they are in the best position to pay him what he’s worth. Those five, along with Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet, offer a nice stability that the Clippers can continue to surround with solid role players, from Marcus Morris to JaMychal Green to Reggie Jackson.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer certainly isn’t shy about spending money and using his resources to do what’s best for the team, and next season should be no exception. That, combined with the pressure to appeal to Leonard and George’s championship hopes, should propel LA squarely into the title conversation.
2020-21 will be the last year of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract unless he signs the Super Max contract extension this offseason. If he doesn’t sign it, the clock immediately starts for the Bucks to win a title, especially if this season ends without one. The Oklahoma City Thunder faced a similar situation with Kevin Durant’s impending 2016 free agency. They decided not to trade their superstar and instead went all in on winning a title, coming up just short and watching Durant walk to the team that bested the Thunder in those Western Conference Finals four years ago.
The Bucks will simply have to find a way to win a ring. They have locked up their core and won’t face any significant departures from Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, or Brook Lopez during the next year. Milwaukee’s problem is the rest of the roster. Of the primary rotation players, only Ersan Ilyasova has a non-guaranteed contract and is the only possible piece that can be turned over without making a trade. The Bucks have first round picks to utilize, but there’s only so much value in a first rounder to trade, and it takes two to tango.
The Bucks are statistically the best team in the NBA right now, and that’s unlikely to change going forward. There’s a lot of pressure on Milwaukee to get it done though. Giannis’ free agency could be at stake.
The title conversation in 2020-21 remains too far off to see the future clearly, but it’s also close enough to gain a solid perspective on Denver’s championship dreams. They still have a little bit of the way to go. Most of the tough calls have been made, and the Nuggets will enter the 2020-21 season with some very talented players on their roster.
Nikola Jokic will continue to be one of the 10 best players in the NBA. Jamal Murray will continue to grow as a point guard and into an All-Star if he hits the right notes along the way. That probably isn’t enough to win a championship in a year, so the Nuggets will be counting on development from Michael Porter Jr. to push them over the top. They can fast track their way to the top with a well-placed trade, especially if they’d rather not wait for Porter to figure things out.
But the Bucks, Clippers, and Lakers aren’t going anywhere. Other relatively young teams like the Celtics, Mavericks, and Sixers continue to grow. The Warriors and Nets are hoping to bounce back.
There will be no shortage of competition for the 2020-21 NBA title, and the Nuggets better be ready for it when it comes.